This interview was conducted to mark the 300th issue of Classic Rock magazine, which launched in 1998. The anniversary issue is available to purchase online (opens in new tab), and also features interviews with Gene Simmons, Def Leppard, Alice Cooper, Geddy Lee, Justin Hawkins, Rick Nielsen, Fish, Slash and many more.
Few bands have had a second act quite like Queen’s. The idea of continuing without Freddie Mercury was unthinkable back when Classic Rock began, not least to guitarist Brian May. Yet since relaunching in 2003 with former Free and Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers, then later Adam Lambert, the band are as big as they were first time around.
“I’d say more so,” May tells us now. “It’s incredible.”
Queen’s 21st-century resurrection has been burnished by the hugely popular We Will Rock You stage show and the equally blockbusting Bohemian Rhapsody biopic starring Rami Malek as Mercury and Gwilym Lee as May – which won four Academy Awards, the most at the 91st ceremony – as well as string of mega-successful tours that have shown Lambert to be the literal and metaphorical inheritor of Mercury’s crown.
May’s own extra-curricular activities have been varied and unexpected, from returning to his first love of astrophysics to becoming the scourge of badger cullers, fox hunters and politicians alike. It may have limited his musical output over recent years – he hasn’t released a solo studio record since Another World in 1998 – but the legendary guitarist tells Classic Rock that he wouldn’t change a thing
You were interviewed for the very first issue of Classic Rock, in 1998. What were you up to back then?
I’d embarked on the voyage of my second solo album. It had begun with me revisiting all these songs that started me off on this road in the first place – Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Mott The Hoople along the way – but it became something different. And then there was all this emotional upheaval that I was going through at the time, which is just the way I seem to be built. It’s quite a varied record, but it encompasses all that I was at the time. All the external things fused with the internal things, and it all gets very complicated.
Back in 1998, did you think Queen were done and dusted, or did you have a secret master plan to basically become one of the biggest rock bands of the twenty-first century?
Oh, we thought it was over. Roger and I were convinced it would be impossible to carry on. As soon as we lost Freddie, the spirit was gone. We didn’t even have the desire, to be honest. Made In Heaven was supposed to be the final chapter, then we both plugged into our solo work. And then completely by accident we met Paul Rodgers, and we thought: “Maybe let’s work with this guy who was a hero to us, and see what happens.”
How do you look back on that period now? Does the album you made together, The Cosmos Rocks, deserve reappraisal?
I am proud of that album. I think it has some really good stuff and it is underestimated. We had fun and Paul had fun. It was great. Not just him flexing his muscles on the Queen material, but also us playing All Right Now and his songs. I loved going around the world playing that stuff, boys with a new kind of toy. It was great for a while, then eventually it ran its course, and it was obvious that Paul needed to get back to his own career. But we parted on very good terms and keep in touch.
And then of course there’s Adam Lambert, who Queen are with now. If he hadn’t entered your lives, would Queen be big as they are today?
I can’t see that it would have worked with anybody else. He’s a voice in a billion and a presence in a billion; the showmanship, the personality, the range, his ability to reinterpret stuff . Plus he’s nice person to have around. He’s a gift from God.
People never filmed shows on smartphones back in the band’s original heyday. How do you feel about people doing that now?
It’s a strange thing, looking out at the audience and they’re not looking back at you, they’re looking at their phones. Some of them have even got their back to you, taking selfies with me behind them. It’s not the greatest inspiration. But it’s life. I don’t lose sleep over it. Things change over the years, and that’s one of the things.
Did you watch The Beatles documentary, Get Back?
I did. It was very close to home for us, because they were the kind of situations we very often found ourselves in. I found the first episode quite difficult, because they’re not really getting on and the creative juices aren’t flowing very well. But the second episode is a lot nicer to watch. It’s great to see George Harrison come into his own. And there are moments of pure magic, like John Lennon singing the song that has the melody of Jealous Guy but with completely different lyrics. That knocked me sideways.
Is there a Get Back-style doc waiting to be made on Queen?
I don’t think so. We have little snippets, but we were very self-conscious. There’s some that went into the One Vision mini-documentary, but we hadn’t got used to cameras being around, so it’s not very natural-looking footage. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. Maybe it’s best to keep a little mystique.
Axl Rose asked you to play guitar on the album that became GN’R’s Chinese Democracy. What was that like?
It was an odd experience. I think it was about midway through the whole thing. By that point Axl was pretty much a recluse. He was working in his house, and I was working in the studio at the bottom of the hill with his engineer at the time, and he only rarely came down. Now and again he would call in and get all enthusiastic and talk a lot, and then he’d be gone again. I don’t think any of what I played actually got onto the album.
Have you crossed paths with Axl since?
Not much, no. There’s the occasional message, but really very little. I really should keep in touch better. I tend to be a bit shy and reclusive myself. I regret terribly that I didn’t keep in touch more with Ed Van Halen.
What’s your favourite memory of him?
I have a lot of favourite memories, but I do remember one time him coming to see us play. We went back to the hotel afterwards. He’d brought a bottle of his favourite drink with him, which I think was Southern Comfort. Anyway, he’s knocking it back, and so I started knocking it back, and I completely lost it. The next thing I remember I was on the floor in the bathroom, having fallen down and cracked my head on the wash basin. I don’t even remember going into the bathroom. It’s one of the few times in my life where I’ve gotten out of control.
In recent years you’ve called out farmers who cull badgers, those still in support of fox hunting, flat-Earthers, anti-vaxers and Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Was there a point where your patience with idiots just ran out?
[Laughs] That’s a good way of putting it. I’m a person who likes to keep an open mind, but I struggle with some of this stuff, I really do. Especially when you start spreading things that are without a doubt misinformation. You become destructive and anti-social. It’s very easy to find proof that the Earth is not flat, so why would you want to go around saying the contrary?
I can’t tolerate people spreading misinformation – it’s a really easy way to get blocked by me on Instagram. And Boris Johnson? Yeah, I just don’t know how he sleeps. He’s responsible for so many awful things happening. That’s an entire other conversation, to be honest.
As a man of science, did you look at Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos being fired into space and think: “That should be me”?
No, because that isn’t what I aspire to. I mean, give me a few weeks in the International Space Station and I might feel differently. I think I’d enjoy that or a trip to the Moon – something substantial. But being shot up there, being weightless for a little while then coming back down doesn’t appeal to me, I’m afraid.
With your astrophysicist’s hat on, what’s the most exciting thing to have happened during the past twenty-four years?
That would have to be the New Horizons mission, flying by Pluto. To do that – and fly by a Kuiper Belt object that wasn’t even known – what an extraordinary thing to do. I contributed stereoscopic processing to it, and I was in the control room when the fly-by took place, and everyone whooped and hollered when we saw those first pictures. It was an incredible, unforgettable experience.
You were voted the greatest guitarist of all time by the readers of Total Guitar magazine. Do you agree with them?
I couldn’t possibly agree. I’m highly flattered, and it means a lot to me that so many people voted, because it means they’re into my work. So I’m massively appreciative. But do I believe it? No. I mean, look at someone like Al Di Meola. There’s no way I could even aspire to doing a hundredth of what he does. Yngwie Malmsteen… any number of people. So yes, I appreciate it, but it makes me smile.
You played on the roof of Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. What’s the view like from up there?
I could see the crowds out along The Mall, and I could also see down into the palace itself and the party going on. But other than that you can just see lots and lots of chimney pots. But the feeling of being up there was of pure terror. Not because of the height, but because the possibility of making a fool of myself was so enormous. People say: “Were you scared of falling off?” No, I was scared of being the guy who fucked it up on top of Buckingham Palace with a billion people watching. It was totally live and totally dangerous.
Have you been invited back for the Platinum Jubilee celebrations this summer?
[Laughs] I am not at liberty to answer that.
There’s Sir Mick Jagger, Sir Elton John, Sir Rod Stewart. Are you feeling left out?
No. I have my CBE, which I’m very happy with. I don’t think there’s any point in me being a Sir. I don’t think it would give me anything I don’t have right now. If they offered me to be a Lord, that would be different, because then I would be able to sit in the House Of Lords and perhaps help influence the way the country is run, particularly with regard to wild animals, which is a big passion of mine.
You’ve collaborated with quite a few artists in the past twenty-four years, and released a couple of albums with Kerry Ellis. But is there part of you that wishes you’d put out more solo music?
Maybe. But in order to do that I would have had to not do all the things I’ve poured my heart into, which are many and various. I’ve enjoyed being able to get back into astronomy in a very serious way; I’ve enjoyed founding and curating my London Stereoscopic Company and publishing lots of stereoscopic material; I’ve enjoyed being able to change things just a little bit in terms of the rights of wild animals. Plus I’ve enjoyed being a father and a grandfather, and hopefully a decent husband, which is a very big deal to me. I would have had to give up all that in order to put more music out.
There were rumours that you’ve been collaborating with Tony Iommi on new music. Any truth in that?
We have been looking at stuff, but we haven’t got as far as we probably would have liked. It takes time. And covid doesn’t help…
What else have you got planned? Any new music?
Well, all eyes are on the tour. We were just flying, hot as hell, then suddenly everything stopped. So getting back out on the road is the all-consuming aim.
How do you see Queen’s influence over the past twenty-four years?
It goes back to that river of rock. There are bands upstream from us, like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and there are bands downstream from us, like the Foo Fighters and The Darkness. I just feel honoured to be part of it. I look at it and think: “Yeah, I did my bit.” And hopefully I’m still doing it.